In the last years, Brazil has intensely discussed its national
identity. This question had not been important under the last
dictatorship, but as the latter came to an end it gained momentum.
At the same time we could see the emergence of a new series
of intellectual essays on Brazil, a genre that had been more
and less despised since the 1940s or 1950s, when academia and
most of all the University of São Paulo imposed a technical
pattern of quality on human and social sciences as a whole.
Essays had been responsible
for some important attempts to define Brazil, as witness the
still respected Roots of Brazil, by Sergio Buarque de
Holanda; the again respected, after a long eclipse, Masters
and Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre, and the now almost forgotten
Portrait of Brazil, by Paulo Prado, all published around
But, when academe
imposed its pattern of quality centered in scientific research,
those books were heavily criticized, with the only exception
of Buarque's Roots. However, in the end of the 80s, Brazil
went back to debate its national identity. It is possible to
link this renewed demand to a renewed supply of essays that
tried to discuss it.
Actually this is
a demand that exceeds academia, and Luis Fernando Verissimo,
a sophisticated but popular writer in Brazil, has been instrumental
in shaping a style of newspaper chronicles variously and ironically
answering the question of national identity. Here we intend
to discuss the issues around national identity focusing some
points that can help us to understand Brazilian imaginaries.
We shall begin by
José de Alencar's important novel Iracema (1865).
Iracema is a name that sounds genuinely Tupi-Guarani, that is,
Amerindian, but was created by Alencar himselfeven though
this fact was only discovered around 1930, by the literary critic
Afrânio Coutinho, who also seems to have been the first
to notice that Iracema is an anagram of America.
This means that the
character Iracema would be a metaphor for the continentor
at least for Brazil. Iracema is also a Brazilian adaptation
of Bellini's Norma (1831), a popular opera in our country
at the time. In 1844, when theatres reopened after the troubles
of the Regência period, it was the first opera to be shown
in Rio de Janeiro.
As in Norma,
Alencar's main female character, Iracema, is a native priestess
who becomes the lover of the enemy (either Roman or Portuguese)
commander. As in Norma, Iracema has a tragic or at least
sad end but her son (or her children, for Norma) survives her.
There also are important
differences. The first one is that native people are divided
in Iracema: some, the good ones, favor the Portuguese, while
their enemies (the bad guys) fight them. Norma's Gauls were
united against their foreign foe. This implies that Portuguese
can be the allied of the original Brazilians, while Romans could
never ally themselves to Gauls.
The most important
difference, however, is that Iracema's Portuguese lover survives
her, and as the father of her son legitimizes himself as the
owner of the newly-discovered country. (Norma's lover, Pollione,
dies with her at the stake). Allegorically this means that Ceará,
Alencar's and Iracema's state, which also works as a metaphor
for Brazil (or for America), is born as the little orphan Moacir,
"son of the grief", as the author translates his name.
What was formerly
native, or nature, is now dead. We now belong to the Portuguese,
or at least to Portuguese language and culturewhich may
be a little ironic, since Alencar was one of the first Brazilian
authors to hold systematically that we do not write as our forefathers1.
If there is a Brazilian identity, this is the identity of orphans
that belong to foreign fathers. Nature, as a female principle,
is presently deadand maybe it died because Power (her
lover's name, Martim, derives from Marte, Mars, the ancient
god of war), the foreign male principle, ceased to love her.
This means that our
relationship to nature, to our history, to femininity will be
quite difficult. They all smell of death. And conversely life
means power, war, the male principleand, to sum it all,
everything that is alien and foreign to us. We will probably
always miss our lost mother Iracema, that died when we were
so young that we can scarcely remember her.
to our origins will then be much more difficult than the one
that the Italian public of Bellini's would have with their country.
(Norma's Gaulese were easily deciphered by 19th century public
as present-day Italians). It is true that Brazil was unified
at the time, while Italy was still divided in several separate
states, but Italy could conceive of itself in a historical continuum
across two or more millennia, while Brazil would feel that at
its birth there was a mother's death, an unmistakable loss,
something that could never be repaired.
Let us now discuss
another Brazilian representation of nature. Our present currency,
real, dates from 1994, when it replaced the last one of a series
of names that in the preceding eight years had been identified
in our experience to an inflation with no precedents: cruzeiro
(1942-67 and 1970-86), cruzado (1986-9), cruzado novo (1989-90),
cruzeiro (1990-3) and cruzeiro real (1993-4).
Real has been widely
discussed from the economic point of view, but I think I was
the only one to discuss its iconography2. Brazilian
banknotes traditionally showed the images of heroes of our historystatesmen
and soldiersor allegories of some activitiesindustry,
agriculture, and trade. But in 1994, for the first time in Brazilian
history, the iconography of the five banknotes of real consisted
only of animals. Men and women were forgotten. Nature replaced
This downsizing of
Brazilian history in our 1994 banknotes is not surprising. It
is a commonplace in Brazil to say that our history is little
known; it is such a commonplace that we should look for a better
explanation for this phenomenon.
In the 1990s several
Brazilian economists thought that our history had been a series
of errors. Industrialization might have been one of them: since
1955, it would have been our major cause of inflation. I dare
say that for some economists our recent history could be equated
with inflation, and that this is the idea underlying, consciously
or unconsciously, the iconography of real. Most of what man
did in Brazil would have been faulty. (Curiously this pessimistic
belief is shared by many more Brazilians, from the Right to
the Left). We could then forget our whole historyand replace
it by nature.
If I seem to exaggerate,
we could remember the moment when the economists who had devised
the Plano Cruzado (1986)the first of several plans which
intended to put an end to inflationwent to President José
Sarney to tell him the great lines of the plan. It was reported
they suggested cruzado as the name for the new currency, explaining
it as a synthesis of the words cruzeiro and desindexado
(= no more indexed).
Then the President
remindedor rather toldthem that cruzado had already
been the name of a Portuguese, ergo Brazilian, currency in the
16th century. This story can be read as the mere perception
that some economists in power usually know little history, but
this seems to me to be a rather superficial reading of it. We
would rather say: they do not care about history. And the iconography
of the real allows us to go even further: they are against our
We should now dwell
a little on the name of our present currency, after having discussed
its images. Real had already been the name of a Brazilian currency.
It's derived from rei, king, and was a common name for
national currencies across all the Hispanic world. (There is
a line in the Padilla and Montesinos' hit La Violetera: "que
no vale más que un real
The choice of this
name had historic precedents even stronger than the name cruzado,
since real (or its plural form mil réis) had been
the national currency for centuries, until 1942. But the 1994
real derives from reality, not from king. The ancient real had
as its plural réis, the new real has as its plural
The memory of the
ancient name is completely obliterated. This explains why the
1994 real could be presented as something absolutely new. Only
historians would remember it was the recovery of an ancient
If in the span of
only eight years (1986 and 1994) two currency names in Brazil
repeated ancient names of the national currency, and both times
this was done by economists unconscious of that repetition,
we should consider this as more than a coincidence. Economists
in power may antagonize history, or at least Brazilian history.
They may have an idea of reality that excludes history (this
is why they overvalue nature as a synonym of reality).
Lastly, the name
real, when it derives from reality, is a curious name for a
currency. Even if a foreign public ignores that in Portuguese
the word moeda (as moneda in Spanish) means at
the same time money, currency and coins, the fact is that money
is not considered in economic theory as something real. It represents
a value. Its ontological characteristics are not those of a
being, but those of representation and values.
To say that money
is real, to call a currency real can only be explained as a
strong reaction against the devaluation of money. Monetary values
had come to value almost nothing in Brazil. We had had inflation
rates of 85 percent in a month, in the beginning of 1990. This
implied that banknotes could lose more than 95 percent of their
face value in less than a year.
It also happens that
in those years, for the only time in our history, writers appeared
in banknotes; and there was talk that the family of a writer
had not been happy with what in other times would have been
an important sign of reverence4.
To give currency
the name of unidade real de valor (real value unit) and
later of real would then help to stabilize what was undervalued
or devaluated, to give a smell of reality to what had lost nearly
all value. This explains the ontology of real. It also helps
to understand its iconography. And last but not least it allows
us to understand the strategy of equating history, past and
inflation, on one side, and on the other side reality (in the
name), nature (in the images) and future.
The first reference
to the name of the future currency as real was heard in a TV
Globo soap opera of 1993-4, Fera ferida (Wounded beast),
which did discuss extensively corruption in Brazil. Corruption
was so widespread in that telenovela that the small town
of Tubiacanga was eventually destroyed by a storm, which could
(literally) be called in English "an act of God."
History (in the sense of human action, especially human political
action) was so bad that nature finished by judging and condemning
it. But in the last chapter we could see that in a couple of
years the stormed town had been able to recover itself; it was
even in a better shape than before. Tubiacanga was now a prosper
place, and this was due to the action of small entrepreneurs
and, we could maybe add, of some informal NGOs. Politicians
never did any good to the town, which of course allegorized
the country, as it usually happens in Brazilian soap operas,
but the independent action of the small ones did.
That could be the
good news in the telenovela's morale. But we also had bad news:
the same corrupt politicians remained in power. The mayor and
the speaker of the local council had switched places, but they
were still in power. What could that mean? One or two things.
First, that Brazil can redress itself and is tired of waiting
for the actions of politicians.
One of the worse
traits in our political cultureto condemn the government
for everything bad that happens in the country because we hold
it responsible for those things we could but do not dois
losing ground. More and more people are organizing themselves
in order to act. This is an important change in Brazil. But,
second, institutional power has not changed. It remains in the
same traditional hands. This explains why our politicians are
held in something close to contempt. Brazilians elect them but
also despise them.
A few months after
Ayrton Senna's death in Imola (on May 1, 1994), a reader wrote
to daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo expressing his
disapproval that the dead F-1 race driver had been mourned at
the State Assembly. How could someone so respected as Senna
be associated with politicians? He was the real public person,
not the (elected) representatives of the people.
with the Past
we suggested that our history begins as an act of mourning and
that we feel orphans. Nature, that was good and belonged to
us, had been replaced by a foreign power, which brought us history,
but a history that killed our nature (Martim let Iracema die
because he did not love her anymore).
action, creative action would be difficult because our history
is not exactly ours. Nature is good but it is lost to us. Historyprospective
history, future historyis frightening and maybe bad. Then,
discussing the name and the images of real, we have seen that
nature and history have changed their meanings.
history, past historywas bad and faulty. Future history
could be good, but only if we could break with our past and
have a brand new start. Many people could agree with this, maybe
even most people in Brazil, but what is far from obvious is
that nature and reality could represent that start.
The equation nature-reality
underlying the 1994 real implied that, instead of a rational
project of political creative action, we had a mythical iconography.
Finally, discussing the first soap opera that attempted to make
an inventory of the Fernando Collor presidential experience
we suggested that many people wereand areskeptical
about politicians and political action.
Political field would
always be subject to corruption and mismanagement. But some
light could be seen at the end of the tunnel: independent organized
action of common people starts to become important in Brazil.
Of course political power would remain in the same hands. Of
course small enterprise was more important than NGOs in Tubiacanga.
But new political
actors could enter the public field and begin to change it.
Actionpolitical creative actioncould become a possibility.
This is different from Iracema and real stories. In Alencar's
novel action was blockaded since we could not stop to mourn
our origins. In the real story action was linked to a myth,
the myth of reality. Here we have something less ambitious but
more promising: the action of independent people.
And in Tubiacanga
story nature is not even mentioned. Brazilian auto-image gives
much importance to nature. Our flag represents our nature (the
green color mean our forests, the yellow our gold, and so on).
It is true that the stars in the center of the flag originally
represented the sky over Rio de Janeiro on the night of November
15, 1889, when we became a Republic5_ and this means
that a sort of history, even if it is a naturalized astronomic
history, stays in the center of one of our national symbols.
For a long time,
Brazilians were very proud of their nature, much more than of
their history. So it is interesting that in a soap opera that
discusses Brazil (something some soap operas do, but only some)
politics and society come to be more important than nature.
Today when we discuss nature we mean ecology, which is completely
different from the former ufanismo (from the book Porque
me ufano do meu país, "Why I am so proud of
my country", by Affonso Celso6, the epitome
of the celebration of Brazil for its natural riches). Ecology
is a political issue that requires human action, while ufanismo
meant all action was unnecessary and even unwelcome since it
would compromise our riches.
Natural riches did
not need to be exploited. Their richness consisted exactly in
being an ontological stock, something that would become more
and more valuable precisely by not being exploited. Human action
could not be positively valued. It was either impossible or
unwelcome. We stayed in the world of nature, while our European
cousins were in the battlefield of history.
And of course if
we now enter consciously the historical arena this change will
only keep its promises if the history we make is different from
what was history in the preceding times. Our history will not
be European or North Atlantic history. Our political action
will not be the same as theirs. Even if to have "a politics
without politicians", as many Brazilians seem to desire,
can be an illusion, it opens some interesting possibilities.
And this verbto
openmay be the synthesis of what we have been saying.
For a long time, Brazil prided itself on its nature, I mean,
on something that is closed and deemed to be perfect. But at
the same time Brazil was appreciated as a country able to receive
different people, different practices, even different theories.
writer Oswald de Andrade called anthropophagy this ability to
incorporate different and even incompatible traditions into
a new body. Anthropophagy is the contrary of a static nature.
It means an openness to the other. It means creative action.
Maybe the sometimes
sad belief of many Brazilians that we do not have an identity
could be deciphered as a melancholic perception of something
that in its core is nevertheless an asset rather than a liability:
not to have an identity (or not to have an essence, a nature)
is to be open to new opportunities.
In a world that now
gives more importance to culture and creative action than to
nature and stability, to human action more than to natural stocks,
openness can be an interesting positive trait. Maybe ufanismo
was only a bad, very conservative perception of ourselves.
Writer Machado de
Assis (1839-1908) already knew that when he showed his discontent
with a foreigner whom he entertained in Rio de Janeiro. This
man told him that, much more admirable than the work of man,
was the landscape of Guanabara baythe work of God.
Action and nature
often come at odds. To appreciate action we must downsize nature,
and vice-versa. This also implies that in order to upsize human
action it is necessary to be open to new identities. Maybe the
inexistence of a Brazilian ethnic identity will help us in the
new world that is coming to light. The emptiness of our identity,
the vacuity of our nature could then be positive things.
We could continue
for a while, and remember that in philosophy the words nature
and essence can be used in a certain sense as synonyms if we
leave aside the meaning of nature as, say, the green world7.
One important presupposition of many debates that have raged
in Brazil about the reasons why it is so difficult to act politically
in our country is that, if we do not know who we are, how can
we know what we can do?
We then compare ourselves
to other people who have a clear perception of their identitiesNorma
Gaulese, for instance or should we say Italians? They know who
they are, so they can rebel against the Romans (or the Austrians).
But who are we? If we return to Iracema, we are neither pure
Indians nor pure Portuguese. If we were either, it would be
much easier to know how to act, to understand which acts would
be the correct ones.
Action would then
rely on identity, politics on nature, ethics on a sort of national
essence. When they endeavored either to discover the roots of
Brazil or to portray it, Sérgio Buarque and Paulo Prado
both defended the idea that we must understand its essence,
in order to seize the reasons of what is bad in our country.
If Brazil is unable
to develop, if it was the last country in our hemisphere to
abolish slavery, if it became the "sleepy giant" celebrated
in the national anthem (an image that is mocked in common conversation),
it is because Brazil does not know who it is, it is because
we do not know who we are.
All the problem lies,
however, in this main idea. It is wrong. It engenders exactly
what it is supposed to challenge. Those who debated and still
debate national identity as something stable think they are
trying to free action from its addiction on foreign models.
But they establish an unjustifiable distinction between actions
good and bad: positive actions would be those conforming themselves
to Brazilian essence. Brazilian essence should then precede
In other words, Brazilian
nature (both green and Thomist) should precede Brazilian history
and politics. Philosophically this is the precise opposite of
existentialism, that says that in human world existence comes
before essence. We can then hint that Brazilian debate about
itself is rather essentialist. It hangs on a priority of essence
on existence, of nature on action, of ontology on politics and
priorities are probably of Thomist origin, which would not surprise,
since most of Portuguese culture during the colonial centuries
came from scholasticism and until recently most philosophical
curricula here were focused on Aquinas. This means, to sum it
up, that the question of action is posed exactly in the terms
that forbid to answer it.
We should break with
what we can call the Aquinas question. If we do not act, it
is not because we do not know who we are. It is precisely because
we keep asking who we are. Action will be creative only if it
does not depend on predetermining the nature of the agent.
was originally presented as a paper to the Globo Conference
at the Centre for Brazilian Studies - http://www.brazil.ox.ac.uk/
- at University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
Renato Janine Ribeiro teaches Ethics and Political Philosophy
at USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and is a visiting
professor at the Center of Brazilian Studies from University
of Columbia in New York. Ribeiro is also the author of several
books, including A sociedade contra o social: o alto custo
da vida pública no Brasil" (2000, Jabuti Award
from 2001) and A universidade e a vida atual - Fellini
não via filmes (2003).He has his own website -
- and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org